How Can Educators Differentiate Instruction for ELLs Through Academic Teaming?
ELLs in Team-Centered Classrooms
English Language Learners can thrive in inclusion or mainstream classrooms, as long as an effective instructional model is in place. Team-centered classrooms benefit ELLs’ speaking skills while giving them a personalized, rigorous experience, even in large mainstream classrooms.
Close Monitoring and Support by Students and Teachers
Differentiated instruction is more focused on what the teacher does. What we have found is that student teams actually personalize instruction for each team member through team structures, as illustrated in The Power of Student Teams: Achieving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning in Every Classroom Through Academic Teaming (Toth & Sousa, 2019).
In a team-centered classroom, students are expected to monitor their own team tasks and verify the team’s accomplishment of a learning target. The team members and teacher ensure that all students in the team can demonstrate evidence of their learning.
If an ELL student needs extra support, that need will become more visible in a team-centered classroom than it would in a traditional, teacher-centered classroom, where it’s much harder to know what students are thinking. Through observing students discussing, questioning, and debating within their teams, teachers can decide what kind of extra support ELLs need.
Engaging Peer Support in Academic Teams
Students are often capable of providing support to each other. Students can be amazingly perceptive, and when given the chance, we have seen them step up to coach their peers.
One example comes from a 3rd grade inclusion classroom we observed. A student with disabilities felt he couldn’t keep up with the pace and became upset; the team encouraged their frustrated team member to write down only page numbers for the evidence they were citing together, rather than the full quotes. They came up with this solution entirely on their own, the teacher approved, and this adjustment to the task allowed the team to reach their learning target while still keeping the task rigorous. Besides practicing their problem-solving and critical thinking, these students were also practicing crucial social-emotional skills in an authentic situation.
As a last resort, the teacher can step in to remediate students, correcting misconceptions or providing different learning strategies (the teacher will have more time for this kind of individualized support in a team-centered classroom than in a traditional classroom, due to less time spent on direct instruction).
ELL Teaming Success in the Des Moines Public Schools District
Des Moines Public Schools shifted toward team-centered instruction and saw promising outcomes with their ELLs. 2017-2018 math and reading assessment scores indicated that ELLs in Des Moines public schools where teaming was implemented outperformed ELLs in Des Moines public schools where teaming was not implemented.
In addition to the impact on student academic achievement for ELLs, our LSI Applied Research Center has also observed evidences which show positive student behavior changes and increased social emotional learning competencies correlated to academic teaming.
Team-centered instruction has enormous potential to reach English Language Learners in mainstream classrooms without having to separate them or offer them less rigorous tasks than their peers.